Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Self-Murder Mystery
Christopher Lukas’s harrowing memoir describes a family heritage of destruction.
26 September 2008

Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival, by Christopher Lukas (Doubleday, 272 pp., $24.95)

On the evening of June 5, 1997, the nightly news carried a short bulletin. J. Anthony (Tony) Lukas, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times reportage, and another for Common Ground, a classic history of busing in the Boston schools, had taken his own life. Those who knew him were stunned. His younger brother Christopher, known as Kit, was traumatized but not surprised. Suicide was a part of the Lukas family heritage.

A few managed to escape the darkness—Kit and Tony’s uncle, the Hungarian actor Paul Lukas, had an Oscar-winning film career and appeared in many stage hits. But for the most part, the Lukas family seemed condemned to severe bipolarity and inescapable grief. The boys’ mother Elizabeth, a brilliant, beautiful woman from a prosperous German-Jewish family, suffered from bouts of acute depression. At the age of 33, with everything to live for, she cut her throat with a razor blade and bled to death. Tony was just eight; Christopher, six. It was a decade before they learned what really happened. Their father had merely informed them that Elizabeth succumbed to an illness. True enough, but mental illness was not what he meant to imply. Decades later, Elizabeth’s brother killed himself in much the same manner.

When they finally learned the facts of their mother’s death, the sons felt the double sting of betrayal and dread. Was circumstance or heredity responsible for Elizabeth’s suicide? If circumstance, was it their father’s fault? If heredity, would her sons suffer the same fate? Through adolescence and young manhood, Tony and Kit grew competitive and hostile, drifting away from their father and from each other, seeking solace in worldly achievement. Kit became a documentary film maker and won an Emmy; Tony far outpaced him, rising to the very peak of his profession.

For Tony, the rewards seemed greater. His physical health was good, and his walls were covered with honors. But he never managed to climb out of the slough of despond. For him, psychotherapy and antidepressants were only stopgaps. He married late, had no children and, despite his many accolades, felt that he was a failure. In the end, death seemed the only exit. Kit’s fate was different; he endured. He made a peace with the past, reconciled with his alcoholic father and troubled older brother before their deaths, enjoyed a long marriage, and became a father and grandfather. Several years ago, he successfully fought off an attack of lymphoma.

If Kit’s is the happier story, it’s not because of wise counselors and chemical aids—after all, those had been available to Tony as well. Valor was obviously the key component in Kit’s survival. In his searingly candid memoir, he provides an anatomy of melancholy, examining the mysteries of bipolar disorder, acknowledging a lifelong fight with his own demons, and grieving over those who could not emerge from the dark night of the soul. Lukas is poignant and informative throughout. At his best, he echoes the sonorities of Job: “I alone have escaped to tell thee.” Blue Genes is more than an apt title; for those who are no strangers to the heritage of sadness, it’s an invaluable survivor’s manual.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Voodoo That They Did So Well, a collection of City Journal essays about the Gotham stage.

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